July 2002
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Bryn Mawr College
A quarterly newsletter on research, teaching, management, policy making and leadership in Science and Technology

Creating New Chemiluminescent Tools
Karen Young Kreeger

Irena Y. Bronstein ’67

Irena Y. Bronstein ’67, vice president of high-throughput screening applications at Applied Biosystems/Tropix in Bedford, Mass., entered Bryn Mawr when she was just shy of 15, far younger than her classmates. She was born in Russia and went to secondary school in Poland, where students finish high school at an earlier age than in the United States.

"I was always interested in the sciences and thought at one point that I would be a physician, but chemistry was just as fascinating to me," Bronstein recalls. "I was interested in scientific processes that are not reversible, as opposed to, say, physics where they are presumably reversible." This lifelong interest has taken her on quite a journey, from innovative research at Polaroid to cutting-edge drug discovery.

Bronstein majored in chemistry at Bryn Mawr, where she became interested in photochemistry through her studies with Frank Mallory, W. Alton Jones Professor of Chemistry. She pursued this interest as a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University, where she earned a Ph.D. in molecular photochemistry in 1972.

After Hopkins Bronstein went on to a series of postdocs at the University of Houston, Brandeis University and the University of Maryland Medical Center. In 1976 she accepted a research position at the Polaroid Corporation, Cambridge, Mass.

Corporate Research

"It was an unbelievable company that was doing high-level research at the time," Bronstein recalls. In her nine years at Polaroid, Bronstein wore many different hats, including director of biotechnology, technical manager for photochemistry research, senior research group leader for the Land Laboratory and research group leader for photochemistry and polymer chemistry research. She and her colleagues developed the chemical processes to produce archival-quality Polaroid photos that wouldn’t fade.

Polaroid eventually diversified into microelectronics and biotechnology, and Bronstein was appointed one of the heads of biotechnology. This dovetailed with Bronstein’s interest in figuring out how to develop biomedical diagnostic devices that didn’t rely on using radioactive materials. "Part of what I learned at Johns Hopkins, but probably starting at Bryn Mawr, was a process called chemiluminescence — creating light as a result of a chemical reaction," she explains. She tried to push that research line at Polaroid, but it didn’t go anywhere.

In 1984, Bronstein was recruited by a new company, Allied Health and Scientific Products, Andover, Mass. "At the time, Allied was just a building, but it had a lot of money to invest in its start-up operations. Allied was extremely exciting to me because I really hoped to get involved in diagnostics," she says.

Allied also shared Bronstein’s interest in developing diagnostic tools based on chemiluminescence. Soon after she joined Allied, however, it merged with another company that decided not to go into health-related business. "From the fall of 1985 on, it was just a matter of time before our facility would be closed down," Bronstein recalls.

On a flight back from vacation to attend an urgent meeting at Allied around the time of the merger, a fellow passenger asked Bronstein a question that changed her career track: "If you have such good ideas, why don’t you start your own business?" So she did.

Entrepreneurial Success

Her husband, Eugene A. Bonte, now an independent business consultant in the Boston area, helped Bronstein develop a business plan to test whether her idea of using chemiluminescence to replace radioisotopes in biodiagnostic tools would work. She named her new venture the Charles Institute, "because I wrote the plan from my husband’s office in Cambridge, overlooking the Charles River," she explains.

Financial support was probably the greatest challenge. While most biotech start-ups depend on established venture-capital firms for funding, Bronstein decided not to go that route. "We actually raised about a million dollars from so-called "angel" investors — friends, family and individuals," she explains. The seed capital was enough to rent a lab and hire a synthetic chemist, a former colleague at Polaroid, to synthesize the first set of reagents. This was the birth of Tropix, founded in 1986.

The performance of the fledgling company’s first batch of reagents was better than Bronstein anticipated, and they had many different potential applications beyond clinical diagnostics — such as in medical and biological research, pharmaceutical and agricultural products, environmental testing and food and beverage analysis. Bronstein recognized that Tropix needed additional funding to take advantage of this initial success. "I put up all the personal money I had saved," she says. "Our rent was guaranteed on my credit cards, and it stayed that way for several years!"

Bronstein also decided to find a corporate partner to generate licensing revenue to support Tropix. Through a consultant, Tropix found a diagnostics company in Japan that was planning a new product line. "I remember our meeting very clearly," she says. "They brought one of their most important kits, which measured a specific thyroid hormone and required a lot of sensitivity to detect it at low levels. We used their kit and ran the test with our reagents. The results were so outstanding that when we asked our prospective partners where they’d like to go to dinner, they were too excited to eat. They wanted to know immediately how much money we wanted!" The company eventually bought a license to use Tropix’s reagents in the Far East, and also funded Tropix for more research and development.

Over the next 10 years Tropix grew to become a world leader in chemiluminescent detection technologies for the life sciences, with more than 2,500 customers. The company has developed more than 150 new reagents and kits used in the detection and analysis of biological materials. Bronstein holds more than 100 patents and has about 170 publications in scientific journals.

Full Circle

In 1996 Tropix was acquired by what was then Perkin-Elmer Corp. and set up as a wholly owned subsidiary of Applied Biosystems. Today Applera Corp. is the holding company for Applied Biosystems and Celera Genomics. Celera is best known as the company that succeeded in sequencing the human genome in 2000.

As vice president and general manager of high-throughput screening applications at Applied Biosystems, Bronstein says her career has come full circle. "Chemiluminescence is now a part of our core business that generates very good revenues with high growth margins." The high-throughput biological applications she oversees essentially measure the effectiveness of potential drugs in the quest for better medications.

Although she did enjoy working in the small environment of her own company, there’s no denying that having access to a worldwide infrastructure that a multinational corporation can bring "is of great benefit," she offers. Applied Biosystems gives her different types of business advantages — access to diverse R&D projects, market support and distribution sites.

Bronstein hasn’t been in the lab for more than four years now. She’s not sure whether she really misses it, probably because her new challenges as a biotech executive compensate for the excitement of scientific discovery. Her job now is to oversee product development and strategize the positioning of products in the market.

It has been a gratifying and at times bumpy journey, Bronstein acknowledges. "You have to be prepared for almost anything, but it’s satisfying when it works."

About the Author

Karen Young Kreeger is a science journalist who writes on biomedical and women’s health topics, as well as careers in science. Her most recent work has appeared in Bioscience, Genome Technology, Muse and The Scientist.

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